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US slaps patent on tribesman's DNA

THE US government has quietly taken legal possession of the genetic code of a living tribesman in a Third World country, in a move that is bound to raise a storm of protest from scientists and indigenous peoples.

It has awarded itself a patent in the DNA - the blueprint of life - of a man from the remote Hagahai people in the north of Papua New Guinea. The DNA in the cells is of immense potential value, because it has been taken from a man who is infected by one of the few viruses which cause cancer in humans - and yet has remained healthy. It seems, therefore, that his DNA confers immunity to the HTLV virus which causes leukaemia, making it a potential gold-mine.

Two years ago the US had to drop a bid to grant itself such rights over the genetic make-up of a woman from the Panamanian forests, after an international outcry, and late last week a senior British Government official described the new patent as "disgusting".

The patent is believed by protest groups to be the first secured by a government over the genes of a foreign national. The US has applied for it to be registered in 20 other countries.

Its initiative will sharpen an intensifying debate on the ethics of preserving the DNA of endangered groups in laboratory jars rather than trying to save the people themselves, and of making millions of pounds from drugs derived from the genes of poor people without giving them a share in the benefits.

US Patent No 5,397,696, in the name of "the United States of America as represented by the Department of Health and Human Services", is on a sample of cells which it describes as "the first of its kind from an individual from Papua New Guinea".

The cells will be "immortalised", by being kept alive indefinitely in artificial laboratory conditions.

Two years ago the US Department of Commerce tried to take out a similar patent on the DNA in white blood cells taken from a 26-year-old woman of the Guyami - who have lived in relative isolation in the forests of eastern Panama since the arrival of the conquistadors. She is infected by a closely related strain of the HTLV virus.

The US was forced to abandon that attempt by a worldwide protest led by indigenous peoples and their defenders.

Whose genes? Sunday Review, page 75